Hundreds of cars a day have been snaking their way through the San Antonio Zoo since it began offering a drive-thru tour on May 1, but zoo officials hope to return to normal operations soon.

With the zoo closed to foot traffic since March 14, when the governor declared a state of disaster, a drive-thru experience has allowed families to see the animals while practicing social distancing. It also has created a revenue stream for the nonprofit attraction.

“The numbers have been great, and it’s really helped us cover some expenses during this time,” said Tim Morrow, president and CEO of the zoo. “It’s probably not what we would be getting if we were open on a regular basis, especially since we’ve had such great weather. But it’s enough to cover our expenses.”

Since the program began, an average of about 850 carloads of people have entered the zoo per weekday and, on weekends, about 1,050 cars a day, Morrow said.

Exactly when the zoo will fully reopen remains a question. Gov. Greg Abbott has not included zoos in the state’s reopening plans, which recently have included museums, restaurants, salons, swimming pools, and wedding venues. The second phase of reopening businesses in the state starts May 18.

If at that time Abbott gives the go-ahead, the zoo will schedule an opening date, a zoo spokeswoman said.

Zoos are not specifically listed by the state as a business or gathering place that must be closed to the public, Morrow said, so most zoos are working with city officials to reopen according to a set of precautionary protocols. Already, the Frank Buck Zoo in Gainesville has reopened, and the Ellen Trout Zoo in Lufkin opened May 11.

“I think all zoos in Texas would love the governor to come out and set a date – that helps to take the pressure off the zoo and the city,” Morrow said. “We just haven’t heard it yet.”

The San Antonio Botanical Garden opened May 3, he added. “We feel we’re very similar to the Botanical Garden, where there you walk around and see plants and things. Here you walk around and see animals,” Morrow said.

San Antonio Zoo management also is working with local officials to select an opening date, but it likely will be after May 17, the date the drive-thru experience is expected to end.

“We have to be closed for a few days to get ready [to open],” Morrow said.

A joint proposal that the leaders of Texas zoos developed for a state task force requires zoos to create one-way paths through the park, prepare indoor facilities for social distancing, and set up timed-ticket entry to reduce lines. Staff and visitors would be required to wear face masks.

A child looks out from a vehicle and points to animals at the San Antonio Zoo. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

At the San Antonio Zoo, the statue of lions at the entrance would be cordoned off to prevent children from climbing it and potentially spreading germs.

Like other attractions and businesses that have opened in the state, capacity would be controlled, Morrow said. To help with crowd control, the zoo likely will open to members first. And Memorial Day weekend, May 23-25, won’t be as busy, Morrow said.

“Those holidays now make operators nervous because so many people can show up,” he said. “It’s really a new world – in most cases, you want to open up to as many people as you can.

“But in these days, you want to open slowly, make sure you’re doing it right, and make sure you’re able to do what you’re supposed to do to be open safely for the public and for the employees and the animals.”

So far, summer camp programs at the zoo have been suspended for the first two weeks only, and Morrow said they will make decisions regarding the rest of the summer after the governor has released protocols.

But Morrow expects people will want to visit the zoo even more once restrictions are lifted. “The research is showing the first place people want to come back out to right now is public parks, and zoos and museums are in the top five as well,” he said, citing a report by market analyst Colleen Dilenschneider.

The success of the drive-thru program may lead zoo officials to make it a permanent offering. It’s been popular with people who have mobility issues, including the elderly and disabled for whom walking through the zoo isn’t possible or easily done.

But San Antonio has plenty of other options for getting outdoors, he added, including the River Walk, that people will be drawn to when stay-at-home orders are lifted, perhaps bringing about a new appreciation for those places.

“You kind of take it for granted when you live here,” he said. “It’s one of those cases where you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.”

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the business beat reporter at the San Antonio Report.